The Unpredictable Candidacy of Herman Cain Takes Its Final Turn

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Darryl Webb / AP

Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain addresses the media Nov. 8, 2011, in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Herman Cain took days to “reassess” his presidential candidacy before suspending it on Saturday, but it shouldn’t have taken long for him to realize that his campaign was finished. Allegations that Cain conducted a 13-year extramarital affair only hastened the dimming of his star. The campaign had already faded, beset by earlier reports of sexual harassment and startling knowledge gaps revealed under the scrutiny of national attention. His support had been shriveling for weeks; the conservative pundits who saw a liberal witch-hunt in the first round of accusations gave up trying to salvage his candidacy. It was hard to know if Cain would do the same. No 2012 hopeful has been as inscrutable or unpredictable as the former pizza company CEO, and few appeared to relish running for President quite as much.

There is a script for presidential candidates, but Cain never had an interest in following it. In the space of a few months, he rocketed from obscure Tea Party darling to Republican frontrunner without much money or organization in key primary states. Instead he was boosted by free media, memorable performances during the glut of national debates and a snappy tax plan that would have thinned the wallets of most of his supporters. At a moment when the U.S. is gripped by complex problems, Cain put an emphasis on simplicity: 9-9-9 had a catchy ring, even if the numbers didn’t add up.

(PHOTOS: Herman Cain Through the Years)

Cain’s campaign was fun and freewheeling; at times it seemed constructed entirely on the fly. He had a penchant for spouting outre ideas – barring Muslims from his administration, building an electric fence to keep out illegal immigrants, swapping hypothetical U.S. hostages for al-Qaeda detainees – and then walking them back, chiding the media for twisting his words or failing to recognize a joke. Lingering concerns about his grasp of foreign policy were exacerbated by a badly flubbed answer to a simple question about Libya. His ads went viral for their strangeness; the image of his mustachioed aide Mark Block blowing a plume of smoke at the camera will remain among the most indelible of the campaign. When he was teetering on the ropes amid the first batch of harassment claims, he walked into the National Press Club and dropped the jaws of gathered reporters by crooning a rendition of the gospel number “He Looked Beyond My Faults.” He was not, as he liked to remind everyone, a typical politician.

And this was the core of his appeal. At a moment of extreme frustration with the political status quo, he used his powerful personal story to sell change, promising strong, uncluttered leadership in Washington. Cain is an amalgam of a few fetishized Republican types: the businessman capable of restoring fiscal rectitude, the outsider pledging to reform the capital, the anti-government conservative capable of draining the swamp with sheer will.

The first signs of the Cain surge came when he captured a Florida straw poll in late September. He peaked the following month, as primary voters fleeing Rick Perry’s flagging campaign began to view Cain as a pure conservative foil to Mitt Romney. Even embroiled in controversy, he retains strong Tea Party support. And for many of supporters, the color of his skin is a bonus: he is a one-man rebuttal to persistent accusations that their rejection of Barack Obama was a function of race. Steve Deace, an influential conservative radio-show host in Iowa, summed up Cain’s appeal succinctly. ”Number one, we would love to have an outsider. Number two, there are a lot of white conservatives tired of being called racist,” Deace told TIME earlier this month. “People are giving him the benefit of the doubt because he’s an outsider and because he’s not white.”

(MORE: Cain Suspends Campaign Under ‘Cloud of Doubt’)

But none of that would have helped were it not for Cain’s magnetic personality. Even Republicans who sneered at his lack of seasoning confessed to being charmed. Cain’s Republican rivals praised him effusively, though this may be because they didn’t perceive his rise as a long-term threat.

They weren’t the only ones. Since the beginning of his campaign, skeptics in the media and party establishment have been suspicious that Cain was running only to burnish his brand, sell books and inflate speaking fees. He tried to chart an unconventional path to the nomination, drawing adoring crowds in states without much tactical import and skipping retail spadework in key primary battlegrounds like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. (On Wednesday, as he mulls his fate, Cain is crisscrossing Ohio —  a general-election bellwether, but not a state worth his limited resources early on in the primary.) At the height of his rise, Cain slipped off the campaign trail altogether to hawk his latest book, This is Herman Cain! My Journey to the White House. At times, the campaign seemed like one big book tour – the logical extension of a self-help empire run by a former radio talk show host given to speaking in the third person — that morphed for a month into the hottest show in politics.

In his absence, the race will lose its only genuine political outsider (though he was once a Washington lobbyist and a member of the Kansas City Fed) as well as a vessel for Tea Party frustrations. But his ideas still hold considerable sway: the appeal of his 9-9-9 plan lingers in flat tax put forth by Rick Perry, whose campaign seems a potential landing spot for Cain’s supporters. Over the past month, some of those voters have been flocking to Newt Gingrich, but Cain still polled in the mid-teens in two polls conducted nationally in November. If those voters flee as a bloc, it could be enough to cement Gingrich’s place atop the field or propel Perry back to relevance–and pose a threat to Mitt Romney in the process. As we’ve seen, Republican primary voters are a fickle bunch; more than half in both Iowa and New Hampshire regularly report that their minds aren’t yet made up. The candidate who can best bottle Cain’s brand of business savvy and homespun conservatism is the likeliest to rope in the passel of passionate voters who flocked to Cain in the first place.

A shrewd businessman knows when an investment has gone bad, and Cain – a former math major who crunched numbers for the Navy – could surely read a poll. Some of his rivals were  trying to nudge him toward the door; last Tuesday, both Michele Bachmann and Jon Huntsman suggested the allegations Cain faces had done irrevocable damage to his candidacy.

(MORE: Mark of the Non-Denial Denial)

He clearly had, and effectively folded his campaign on Saturday. But even if he had chosen to proceed, he was unlikely to retain enough support to notch a strong showing when the voting begins in January, or amass enough money to keep him afloat beyond that. The Cain Train had wrecked, whether he chose to end his campaign or not.

Updated Saturday, Dec. 3 at 4:21 p.m.